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Know the West

Budget crisis stalls conservation


If you squinted hard at the brief and fuzzy “State of the State” address California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered Thursday morning you might have detected a glimmer of good news for environmentalists: A controversial water conveyance project the governor has been pushing for – a canal that would suck water from the Sacramento River to feed the state’s thirsty southern half – may have been forced on hold. The partisan budget rift has gone so deep – indeed, said the governor, “Conan’s sword could not have cleaved our political system in two so cleanly” – that all talk of “infrastructure or water,” among other things, has been suspended. At least for now.

Little comfort that is, though, for conservationists enduring what should have been a busy and well-funded winter. California voters have scarcely ever said no to a single ballot measure funding clean water and parks, and the last eight years of elections have piled up a healthy kitty for everything from wetland restoration to trail repair to city aquariums, all funded with grants tied to bonds. But since a state without a budget and a $42 billion deficit looks about as good to an investor as a vagrant without a van or a bank account does to a bank, California hasn't been selling many bonds lately. “Unfortunately, the nationwide credit crunch and State budget woes have combined to close the bond market to California,” State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said in a statement. And “until the Legislature and Governor adopt a budget that keeps California out of the poorhouse,” that’s not likely to change much.

On December 17, the state’s finance department called a halt to a staggering number of grant-and-bond-funded infrastructure, education, conservation, restoration and environmental remediation efforts. The list of roughly 5,600 projects includes bike trails along more than a dozen different rivers, a pilot program to monitor mercury levels in California Delta fish; urgent statewide plans for eradicating invasive species, plus ongoing efforts to restore the West’s largest brackish wetland. Several salmon population studies have been stopped, along with critical evaluations of Sandhill cranes, giant garter snakes and the storied Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard. All told, says Lockyer’s office, $3.8 billion in funds have been cut off.

The result, says Darla Guenzler, executive director of the California Council of Land Trusts, is confusion, chaos and fear among nonprofits, especially those charged with minding the environment. The impact on what she calls “natural systems” projects has been particularly devastating. “We’re trying to do everything we can to patch together funding and move projects forward,” she says. “But a lot of programs – especially the ones that involve things like Coho salmon recovery and invasive species eradication – already have tens of millions of dollars invested in many years of work.” If the projects are abandoned, all that work can literally be undone.

“You can put a building in mothballs if you can’t keep building it,” Guenzler explains. “But that doesn’t work for natural systems.”

Guenzler and a number of other interested parties testified at a hearing before the state financing board on Friday, hope to extract a little cash from the state's coffers just to tide over key projects. After the hearing, the board agreed to “partially thaw” the freeze, releasing $650 million in funds from its accounts to buoy certain transportation, schools and water infrastructure projects until the budget crisis is resolved. But that’s only a small fraction of the missing money, and no one knows for sure who will get it.

“This is unprecedented territory,” Guenzler says. “They’re facing huge public safety issues. If it comes down to a choice between a sewage treatment plant and a habitat restoration – it’s going to be hard to compare those.”

So how will Schwarzenegger and his predominantly Democrat legislators break the impasse? There was a time not too long ago when the Sacramento River canal -- known as the "peripheral canal" in California -- would have played a key role. “We’ve always known and suspected and been told that the [canal] would be the giveaway to Republicans for meeting the Democrats halfway on the budget,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of the nonprofit Restore the Delta campaign. "It was something they had to bargain with." No more. With the state in cash paralysis, she says,  "I can’t imagine how they could justify raising the money to build it."

On Thursday in his fleeting speech, however, Schwarzenegger made it clear that he really does want to build something -- real bad, and soon. “Now the bulldozers are silent,” he lamented. “The nail guns are still. The cement trucks are parked.” Never mind that the lizards have not been counted in well over a month.